Review by Nick Xuereb
Is it too obvious to compare Jessica Au’s new book to Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country? Even before I’d read Cold Enough for Snow, its wintry title, slender spine and Japanese setting brought Kawabata’s novel to mind. Thankfully, the beauty of Au’s writing is not eclipsed by the comparison to Japanese literature’s first Nobel laureate. Moreover, rather than shy away from such high ambitions, Au’s subtle, melancholic style seems to invite the comparison willingly. Like Kawabata, Au describes a world in which human connection is always fleeting, but never entirely out of reach.
A young woman, the novella’s unnamed narrator, has invited her mother on a holiday. The distance between them is clear from the beginning. They have not seen each other for some time, and the reader wonders whether there is something unresolved in their past that separates them. At first, they talk of ordinary things: the rain, art, gifts for relatives back home. It is only as their conversations begin to touch upon life’s larger questions that the starkness of the space between them is laid bare. The question of whether this space is too vast to be traversed is the tender core of Au’s narrative.
Watching the view from the window of a crowded Tokyo train, the narrator notes the big city passing by, ‘recognis[ing] the form of everything’, but seeing ‘in their detail [that] they were all slightly different’; ‘it was these small but significant changes that continued to absorb me,’ she adds. Cold Enough for Snow is a book about observing the ‘small but significant changes’ that exist in the world, in other people and within ourselves.
It is appropriate then that as tourists, the narrator and her mother are constantly pausing to observe: temples, objects in museums, paintings in art galleries. Their habit is to explore each attraction separately, then regroup to discuss—or attempt to discuss—what they
have seen. At an exhibition of Chinese and Korean pottery, the narrator expresses her desire ‘to come to the works naively, to know little about their origin or provenance, to see them only as they [are].’ The narrator would also like to approach her mother in this way, to be ‘on equal footing’, to ‘be made strangers’. The nature of their relationship and their unspoken history makes this an immensely difficult task.
As their journey continues, the narrator’s musings shift from present to past in a series of slice-of-life vignettes. These digressions recount a visit to her boyfriend’s father’s country property, her pleasure at being asked to house-sit for her favourite university lecturer and her sister’s two trips to Hong Kong, among other recollections. One sequence describes the sad story of her uncle’s adolescent love affair. The narrator recalls her mother telling a version of the story many times during childhood, but when she asks her mother about the tale as an adult, her mother tells her, ‘nothing like that had ever happened to her brother.’ The narrator’s sister, who does not remember the uncle’s story either, says it reminds her of a soap opera she’d seen as a girl.
So, Au asks, what is a memory? Is it real or can it be something we only imagine is real? And if we cannot know for sure, how might we know ourselves, our brothers and sisters, our intimate partners, our parents? By withholding its deepest mysteries, Cold Enough for Snow reveals the ghostly power of what remains unsaid, of what waits behind the words we cannot speak.
Early in the book, the narrator enters an art gallery in which ‘groups of ten or twelve were admitted into … a dark and silent room.’ As her eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, ‘a small square of orange light … appear[s] in the distance, [becoming] bigger, and brighter, but so slowly it was impossible to be aware of these changes.’ When the audience are permitted to move around the room and the narrator approaches the light, she realises that it comes ‘not from a screen … but a square-shaped hollow perfectly cut into the wall.’ It is ‘another thing [she has] failed to notice.’
This passage, among the book’s very best, appears to describe the work of American artist James Turrell, whose pieces Backside of the Moon (1999) and Open Sky (2004) can be seen on Naoshima, an island-cum-art gallery in the Seto Inland Sea. The narrator’s failure to refer to Turrell, Backside of the Moon, or Naoshima by name is key; indeed, few of the landmarks she and her mother visit are directly identified. Even so, anyone who has seen Turrell’s work will recognise it from its description in the novel; the scene, however, occurs in a Tokyo skyscraper, not on an island in the Kagawa Prefecture. Is the narrator misremembering her holiday, just as she misremembered the tale about her uncle’s teenage romance? This is not, after all, her first trip to Japan. Au’s relocation of the real-life exhibition—the first and most subtle hint of the narrator’s unreliability—appears to anticipate the potentially spurious tale about the uncle’s teenage romance. Here lies the cool beauty of Au’s novella. These omissions, in allowing the unknown to wrest control from the known, suggest that it is what we fail to perceive—about the world, ourselves and other people—that ultimately defines our most earnest and vital endeavours.
Cold Enough For Snow was published by Giramondo Publishing and has an RRP of $24.95. It is the inaugural winner of The Novel Prize.
Nick Xuereb is a writer from Melbourne. He is completing the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne.